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The toughest race for Olympic athletes is the one for funding

Brittany Bowe of the United States competes in the women's 1000-m Division A race at the Essent ISU World Cup on Dec. 8, 2013, in Berlin.
Boris Streubel | Getty Images
Brittany Bowe of the United States competes in the women's 1000-m Division A race at the Essent ISU World Cup on Dec. 8, 2013, in Berlin.

In the coming weeks in Sochi, Russia, Brittany Bowe will toe the line going for a speedskating medal; Heidi Kloser will rattle down the moguls course aiming for gold; and Abby Hughes will be part of the debut of women's ski jumping. All of them have worked for years to earn this Olympics trip ... and all of them got help along the way through crowdfunding—an advantage that long-ago Winter Games heroes, like Peggy Fleming, Eric Heiden and Brian Boitano, never had.

Thanks to crowdfunding and thousands of generous donors, Bowe, Kloser and dozens of other athletes at the Winter Olympics—including the Jamaican bobsled team, which raised $150,000 in January—will not be going to Russia alone.

Like every other American athlete—and unlike millions of athletes in other countries—the careers of Olympic athletes are not financially supported by the government. True, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) does dole out millions to each individual sports federation, but there are 39 of those, and many more needs than funds can fulfill.

So athletes are learning that along with grit, determination, amazing skill and a little luck, succeeding in their chosen sport now also means marketing, sales, PR and a little good old-fashioned schmoozing.

Paying for the Olympic dream
Commercial sponsors can make up some of the difference, but they most often sign up the golden stars—the big names who can sell watches, sports drinks, candy or clothing. The lesser, younger, up-and-coming stars, often in somewhat obscure sports that don't draw big TV ratings, need to fund their own dreams.

Raising money for Olympic dreams is nothing new, of course. In the games' early days, many athletes simply paid their own way, which is why many of the first U.S. champions came out of America's moneyed collegiate classes. Until the 1970s, Olympic athletes were also required to be amateurs; they couldn't sign up sponsors or get paid for their work.

But after seeing what Eastern Bloc countries had done to circumvent those rules, the International Olympic Committee threw amateur rules into the wind. More and more governments shored up their sports and athletes with money, and it became more and more expensive to pay for the training, coaching, gear, travel and more.

The U.S., however, did not follow that path, letting the free market be the main support for athletes. Today individual sports federations do get between 5 percent and 95 percent from the USOC, depending on their likelihood of success and their ability to come up with the money in other ways. Some sports, such as ice hockey, have large national membership bases that can add to their revenue streams. But it's nowhere near enough for the vast majority of athletes.

(Read more: Why crowdfunding for start-ups could turn out to be a huge mess)

Athletes gain crowd support
With the money not trickling all the way down, the athletes had to do what they do best: Get to work. At first, the fundraising started at home. Car washes, picnics and hometown rallies were common avenues the grass roots relied upon to send their local heroes off to the big show. The great speedskater Bonnie Blair famously got a big donation from her hometown to get the chance to win her five gold medals over three Olympics. In the 1950s, fundraising telethons pulled in dollars to help athletes. And at least one athlete in the 2012 summer games, shot putter Adam Nelson, auctioned a sponsorship on eBay.

But bake sales and fish fries aren't enough anymore. Getting money to go for gold has gone fully digital. For this Olympics, dozens of athletes have used crowdfunding to make their Olympic dreams come true. They have raised tens of thousands of dollars in some cases, through social media–driven crowdfunding sites, pulling in dollars and doling out swag—plus, of course, the special bragging rights that go along with telling your friends that you helped Brittany Bowe win gold (you hope!).

"Americans want to be a part of their athletes' success," said Bill Kerig, CEO and founder of athlete-centered crowdfunding site RallyMe.com. "They want to watch someone on TV and say, 'I helped her get there.' That story makes us feel good about helping."

(Read more: As Olympics loom, NBC leads in the race for prized viewers)

"Americans want to be a part of their athletes' success." -Bill Kerig, CEO and founder, RallyMe.com

Kerig, a filmmaker and former pro skier, founded RallyMe in 2012, and it's become the gold-medal standard for this practice. After using similar services to raise money for a documentary on women's ski jumping—which makes its Olympic debut in Sochi this year—Kerig realized there was room in the marketplace for such an athlete-focused service. KickStarter, GoFundMe, and Crowdtilt are others, but RallyMe has focused all of its attention on athletics-related causes.

"When we started this, we heard that crowdfunding is great for creatives but not for athletes. … I disagreed," said Kerig. "But they don't come here with entrepreneurial bones. They are disciplined, driven, goal-oriented people, but in this area, they need coaching to get it done."

Kerig's group provides video scripts, tips on making videos, a fill-in-the-blanks personal story and a constant stream of email blasts. The athletes start with their own circles, and the most successful ones find a way to expand that circle. Kerig reports that more than 90 athletes, including nearly 30 headed to the Olympics, have raised more than $600,000 collectively since September 2012.

"Making the video about myself was weird," said Kloser. "I had my dad interview me, and it was really awkward. But it needed to be done. And it's become easier as I see people respond to RallyMe and my social media. The more I see people looking at what I'm posting, the more encouraged I am to keep telling the story."

(Read more: Sochi Olympic fears rattle athletes and families)

Lindsay Van of the USA reacts after the second jump at the Ladies Ski Jumping HS 108 during the FIS Women's Ski Jumping on December 21, 2013 in Hinterzarten, Germany.
Simon Hofmann | Bongarts | Getty Images
Lindsay Van of the USA reacts after the second jump at the Ladies Ski Jumping HS 108 during the FIS Women's Ski Jumping on December 21, 2013 in Hinterzarten, Germany.

Among the RallyMe success stories are Lindsey Van, a ski jumper at the heart of Kerig's film who pulled in more than $20,000; speedskater Jilleanne Rookard, who surpassed her goal of $5,000, as did Bowe, to raise $8,500; and brothers Danny and Drew Duffy, who needed to raise twice as much after they both made the U.S Ski Team (though they are not going to Sochi). With a lot of help from their mom, they met their $50,000 goal in 60 days.

It's not just Americans, either. Canadian freestyle skier Kim Lamarre was looking for $15,000, while the "Cool Runnings"–inspired Jamaican team's cash inflow got headlines everywhere.

However, like any start-up trying to pull in investor dollars, there are more misses than hits. For every success like Bowe, Van and the Duffys, there are stories like ski jumpers Abby Hughes and Alissa Johnson, who as of Jan. 20 were still $4,000 short of their goal; and Gunther, who as of Jan. 30 was just shy of 50 percent of her goal of $20,000. Freestyle skier Dylan Ferguson was $8,000 short.

Crowdfunding can do more than simply raise money for training expenses. After securing her spot on the U.S. speedskating team, Sugar Todd reached out to donors to help her thank her parents. On GoFundMe.com, she successfully reached her goal of raising enough money to fly them to Sochi to watch her in person. The Todds will fly on a plane, but they'll be carried there by the hundreds who chipped in to help.

—By James Buckley Jr., Special to CNBC.com

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